Thursday 3 November 2016

The Case Against Democracy

If we economists worry about negative externalities, the great big unmentionable one is the negative voter-on-voter externality caused by, well, the things Jason Brennan and Bryan Caplan worry about.
In a new book, “Against Democracy” (Princeton), Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown, has turned Estlund’s hedging inside out to create an uninhibited argument for epistocracy. Against Estlund’s claim that universal suffrage is the default, Brennan argues that it’s entirely justifiable to limit the political power that the irrational, the ignorant, and the incompetent have over others. To counter Estlund’s concern for fairness, Brennan asserts that the public’s welfare is more important than anyone’s hurt feelings; after all, he writes, few would consider it unfair to disqualify jurors who are morally or cognitively incompetent. As for Estlund’s worry about demographic bias, Brennan waves it off. Empirical research shows that people rarely vote for their narrow self-interest; seniors favor Social Security no more strongly than the young do. Brennan suggests that since voters in an epistocracy would be more enlightened about crime and policing, “excluding the bottom 80 percent of white voters from voting might be just what poor blacks need.”
The article continues - and I'm again entirely amazed that this work is now hitting the mainstream like this:
Brennan draws ample evidence of the average American voter’s cluelessness from the legal scholar Ilya Somin’s “Democracy and Political Ignorance” (2013), which shows that American voters have remained ignorant despite decades of rising education levels. Some economists have argued that ill-informed voters, far from being lazy or self-sabotaging, should be seen as rational actors. If the odds that your vote will be decisive are minuscule—Brennan writes that “you are more likely to win Powerball a few times in a row”—then learning about politics isn’t worth even a few minutes of your time. In “The Myth of the Rational Voter” (2007), the economist Bryan Caplan suggested that ignorance may even be gratifying to voters. “Some beliefs are more emotionally appealing,” Caplan observed, so if your vote isn’t likely to do anything why not indulge yourself in what you want to believe, whether or not it’s true? Caplan argues that it’s only because of the worthlessness of an individual vote that so many voters look beyond their narrow self-interest: in the polling booth, the warm, fuzzy feeling of altruism can be had cheap.

Viewed that way, voting might seem like a form of pure self-expression. Not even, says Brennan: it’s multiple choice, so hardly expressive. “If you’re upset, write a poem,” Brennan counselled in an earlier book, “The Ethics of Voting” (2011). He was equally unimpressed by the argument that it’s one’s duty to vote. “It would be bad if no one farmed,” he wrote, “but that does not imply that everyone should farm.” In fact, he suspected, the imperative to vote might be even weaker than the imperative to farm. After all, by not voting you do your neighbor a good turn. “If I do not vote, your vote counts more,” Brennan wrote.
My old Public Choice students will be well familiar with these arguments. And so too will some of the students at Victoria University: Ilya Somin was in town last year, and we helped host a guest lecture by him at Vic, attended by at least some of my Public Finance students there.

The article even reminds people about the excellent old British institution in which the Universities had their own constituencies until 1950, where their graduates got an extra vote. If you were an Oxford grad, you got to vote in your home constituency, and for the Oxford seat.

Consequences of the current system?
The political scientist Scott Althaus has calculated that a voter with more knowledge of politics will, on balance, be less eager to go to war, less punitive about crime, more tolerant on social issues, less accepting of government control of the economy, and more willing to accept taxes in order to reduce the federal deficit. And Caplan calculates that a voter ignorant of economics will tend to be more pessimistic, more suspicious of market competition and of rises in productivity, and more wary of foreign trade and immigration.
You could argue that the current system prevents armed insurrection by the less-franchised. But you could also observe Trump hinting that his followers might do that anyway if he doesn't win.

Read the whole piece. Strongly recommended.

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